Michigan Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Northwestern

Zach Dirlam@Zach_DirlamSenior Analyst IINovember 7, 2012

Michigan Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Northwestern

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    The Michigan Wolverines and No. 24 Northwestern Wildcats will square off at the Big House this Saturday in a pivotal Legends Division matchup.

    The Wolverines blew out the Minnesota Golden Gophers last weekend and have a chance to get themselves back into the BCS rankings with a win over the nationally ranked Wildcats. 

    Meanwhile, Northwestern is 7-2 on the year, but need a victory over one of the Big Ten Conference's top teams in order to validate their impressive start. 

    Click ahead to see what Michigan will need to do in order to top Northwestern.

Contain Venric Mark

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    Venric Mark does it all for the Northwestern Wildcats. The junior running back has come out of nowhere, and ranks No. 5 in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (184.11), which has helped the Wildcats get off to a 7-2 start.

    The Tomball, Texas native has rushed for over 100 yards in six games and has scored 12 total touchdowns, including two punt returns of 75 and 82 yards, so the Michigan Wolverines will have to account for Mark in all phases of the game.

    Northwestern will look to give Mark as many touches as possible, and the 5'8", 175-pound speedster will inevitably have some success against Michigan's defense, which allowed Ameer Abdullah to rush for 101 yards in their recent loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

    Mark will break off a few big plays, but the Wolverines' defense only has to make sure he does not beat them single-handedly. 

Keep Northwestern in Long Yardage Situations on Third Down

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    The Michigan Wolverines will need a strong effort from their front seven in order to slow down the Northwestern Wildcats' rushing attack, but it will be a long day for Pat Fitzgerald's team if the Maize and Blue are able to force Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian to beat them by completing passes on third down and long situations.

    Northwestern's two quarterbacks have combined to complete 20-of-46 pass attempts on third downs longer than six yards, which is a far cry from their completion percentage on first and second down (70.5%) when the Wildcats are looking to hit shorter passes.

    If Jake Ryan is flying all over the field shredding blocks and turning the Wildcats' option plays inside, Michigan fans should be grinning with joy as Siemian and Colter are forced to consistently complete passes on third down to burn the Wolverines.

    Watch out for some exotic blitzes by defensive coordinator Greg Mattison as well if Michigan's defensive front struggles against Northwestern's offensive line.

Sustain Long Drives to Keep Northwestern's Offense off the Field

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    The Northwestern Wildcats boast the nation's No. 13 rushing offense (236.4 yards per game) and average 30.4 points per game, so the Michigan Wolverines will need to sustain and finish long drives in order to keep Venric Mark and Co. off of the field.

    Last week, the Wolverines went on three touchdown drives that lasted 4:19 or longer against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Michigan should look to do the same thing on offense this week against Northwestern.

    One key to establishing long drives will be to pick up roughly three yards per carry on first and third down, which is not unreasonable to ask even with Michigan's well documented struggles along their offensive line. 

    Thomas Rawls and Fitzgerald Toussaint consistently pounded out short gains in the Wolverines' victory over the Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium last Saturday, and senior quarterback Denard Robinson adds a game-breaking element to Michigan's rushing attack.

    Robinson and the Wolverines should be able to run the football when necessary and shorten the length of the game in order to neutralize Northwestern's potent offense.

Michigan's Offensive Line Has to Block Better

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    The Michigan Wolverines have not been able to run the ball consistently like they were able to a year ago as the new group of offensive linemen have struggled to come together as a unit through the first nine games of the season.

    The Wolverines struggled up front early against the Minnesota Golden Gophers last Saturday, but eventually blocked well enough to allow Michigan's running backs to pick up first downs and give Devin Gardner time to throw.

    Future NFL left tackle Taylor Lewan and the rest of the offensive line will need to be just as good, if not better than they were a week ago if Michigan wants to keep themselves in the mix to win the Legends Division.

    Denard Robinson will have to extend some passing plays with his legs this weekend against the Northwestern Wildcats like Gardner did a week ago, though, which should not be a problem given the Deerfield Beach, Fla., native's past history of turning broken plays into big gains.

    Robinson took down Northwestern by himself last season by finishing Michigan's 42-24 victory at Ryan Field with 454 yards of total offense and four touchdowns.

Win the Turnover Battle

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    Yes, it is totally cliche to talk about winning the turnover battle, but Denard Robinson has been prone to throwing interceptions and coughing up fumbles over the course of his career and when he does the Michigan Wolverines typically wind up losing games.

    Robinson threw three first-half interceptions against the Northwestern Wildcats last year before leading the Wolverines on four touchdown drives in the second half.

    Northwestern's defense is better than it was in 2011, so if Robinson turns the ball over three times in the first half on Saturday do not bank on Michigan's offense exploding later on in the game and leading the Wolverines to a victory. 

    Robinson did not turn the ball over against the Michigan State Spartans and Nebraska Cornhuskers, which is an encouraging sign for Michigan fans.

    On the flip side, the Wildcats take care of the football better than anyone else in the Big Ten Conference, so Michigan cannot afford to have more than one giveaway against Northwestern this weekend.